Joseph Heller was once asked by an interviewer, an impudent fellow, surely, how it was that after Catch-22 he had never managed to write anything on a par with that first book. Heller in his reply displayed the chutzpah and sense of timing of an old-style Jewish comedian: ‘Who has?’ he shot back. It was a good answer, and neatly dodged addressing the dilemma of any writer who at the start of his career produces a masterpiece. Early success is sweet, no doubt, but as the years go on it frequently turns sour. There is the burden of trying to match up to the strengths of one’s younger, more exuberant self, but also to be contended with are the public’s fickleness and tendency to rancour. Goethe ruefully observed that when the world grants you a triumph such as he had enjoyed with Young Werther, its next step is to ensure that you never have another like it.
John le Carré had written a couple of stylish and tautly constructed novels before the appearance in 1963 of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This story of Cold War espionage and betrayal was an immediate bestseller, deservedly so. In the opinion of Graham Greene, among others, it